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16/2/2019 “It’s Eco-Socialism or Death”

“It’s Eco-Socialism or Death”


AN INTERVIEW WITH
KALI AKUNO
Cooperation Jackson leader Kali Akuno on the Green New Deal, the need for
mass civil disobedience, and the necessity of building an internationalist movement
for eco-socialism.

INTERVIEW BY
Editors

The Green New Deal (GND) is now part of the national conversation. But for decades, social
movements have been doing the on-the-ground work to resist fossil capitalism and envision a
di erent future. Such grassroots social mobilization — but at a massive scale — is vital to
ensuring the GND catalyzes transformative social change.

Cooperation Jackson is at the forefront of eco-socialist organizing to create a new society and
economy from the bottom up. Cooperation Jackson encompasses a network of worker
cooperatives and supporting institutions fighting to build a solidarity economy in Mississippi
and beyond. Jacobin’s Green New Deal editorial team spoke with Kali Akuno, the cofounder
and executive director of Cooperation Jackson, and coeditor of Jackson Rising: The Struggle for
Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, MS.

In this wide-ranging interview, we discussed the links between local eco-socialist action,
national movement-building, and an internationalist orientation; tactics and strategies for
interacting with electoral politics to radicalize the GND — and much more. Throughout,
Akuno draws on a long history of environmental justice activism in the United States and
around the world, providing key lessons about how to move forward — and quickly — to
generate a militant, mass movement for a just planet.

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We’re in an interesting political moment where there’s a lot of excitement around a E


GND coming from insurgent left-wing Democrats, but also a lot of pushback from
centrists in the party who have a lot of power, as we saw in Nancy Pelosi’s move to
weaken the Select Committee on a GND. How can we be strategic about interacting with
different representatives and power players? Looking forward to 2020, how can we orient
ourselves towards the most radical GND possible?

KA Organizing is the answer. We have to organize a strong independent base to advance


the transition program we need, be it the Green New Deal or anything similar.
Without that this epic issue will be held hostage to forces seeking to maintain the
capitalist system as is, whether it be the Democratic or Republican variety of this worldview and
its articulated interests. And we have to build this base to advance two strategies at once.

One, we have to organize a mass base within the working class, particularly around the job-
focused side of the just transition framework. We have to articulate a program that concretely
addresses the class’s immediate and medium-term need for jobs and stable income around the
expansion of existing “green” industries and the development of new ones, like digital
fabrication or what we call community production, that will enable a comprehensive energy and
consumption transition. This will have to be a social movement first and foremost, which
understands electoral politics as a tactic and not an end unto itself.

For our part, one of the critical initiatives that we as Cooperation Jackson are arguing for is the
development of a broad “union-co-op” alliance that would seek to unite the three forms of the
organized working-class movement in this country — i.e. the trade unions, workers’ centers,
and worker cooperatives — around what we call a “build and fight” program. It would seek to
construct new worker-owned and self-managed enterprises rooted in sustainable methods of
production on the build side and to enact various means of appropriation of the existing
enterprises by their workers on the fight side, which would transition these industries into
sustainable practices (or in some cases phase them out entirely). We think this is a means
towards building the independence that is required to dictate the terms of the political struggle
in the electoral arena.

The second strategy calls for mass civil disobedience, as we witnessed at Standing Rock. We
have to recognize that the neoliberal and reactionary forces at the heart of the Democratic Party
are only part of the problem. The main enemy is and will be the petrochemical transnationals.
We have to weaken their ability to extract, and this entails stopping new exploration and
production initiatives. This is critical because it will weaken their power, particularly their
financial power, which is at the heart of their lobbying power. If we can break that, we won’t
have to worry about the centrists, as you put it.

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Cooperation Jackson is a local project, and a lot of the most exciting left projects E
now are local or municipal. The Green New Deal is likely to involve a lot of money
that will ultimately be spent by local bodies. Yet the history of the US, including the
New Deal, includes a lot of examples of local institutions actually defending inequalities and
privileges from federal intervention, whereas something like what W. E. B. Dubois called
“abolition democracy” required federal back-up. How do you think about the role of
decentralization and the federal government in terms of a Green New Deal, especially in the
early years?

KA Cooperation Jackson is a locally situated project, as you noted, but we see ourselves
as part of an international, or more appropriately, several international movements.
I say this because we don’t think the answers to the questions posed are local or
national; they are of necessity global. We have to build an international movement to stop
runaway climate change and the sixth great extinction event that we are living through right
now. There is no way around that.

One of the reasons why we have to build a powerful international movement is to fortify our
national, regional, and local movements against the reactionary threats and counter-
movements that exist throughout the US, but that are extremely concentrated in places like
Mississippi. For instance, on a practical level, being connected to an array of international
forces helps give cover to our work in Jackson. We can bring various types of pressure to bear on
local reactionary forces whose constant threats against us can be mitigated (to varying degrees)
by acts of economic and political reprisal by our international (and national) allies.

To the extent that the Green New Deal becomes policy, and is rooted in a radical just transition
framework, it will make a significant contribution toward addressing the climate crisis as it
transforms energy and consumption practices in the US, particularly those of the government,
which is one of the leading carbon emitters on the planet. However, in order for the Green New
Deal to be e ective in its implementation, it is going to have to be extremely nuanced to address
the situated racial and class inequalities that are at the heart of your question.

So for instance, barring a major radical transformation of the Mississippi government (and
society), we in Jackson would need a direct relationship with the federal government to ensure
access to the federal resources provided by the Green New Deal. Under present conditions, if
those resources were allocated to the state government alone, you best believe that Jackson
would only receive a fraction of those resources — if that. The primary reason being the
ongoing structural intersections between settler colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy
that continue to define the US as a project.

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Therefore, in order to be e ective, the Green New Deal must not be one-dimensional in its
orientation — i.e., only concern itself with reducing carbon emissions, without taking into
account how to address and overcome the racial, class, gender, and regional-based inequities in
this society.

Cooperation Jackson has been working on cooperative agricultural models. What E


role should food sovereignty movements play in the GND, in terms of agricultural
production methods?

KA A significant part of the sixth extinction event is the rapid loss of habitat and
corresponding ecological destruction that countless species have su ered the past
two hundred years. We have to, and I stress have to, figure out a way to severely
restrict our habitat (i.e. land) use and engage in some major ecological restoration.

The challenge is how to produce more food, on smaller plots of land, without resorting to
genetic modification. We haven’t figured this out, to my mind. Not even close. I think
permaculture points us in the right direction, as does some degree of small-scale agriculture to
at least break the stranglehold the monopolies currently have. I also think we will need to
maximize urban density, fairly significantly, to enable more habitats to be recuperated for other
species and to restore ecological balance and the replenishment of the soil, which are major
carbon sinks. In doing this we will have to turn our urban spaces into “living farms” to address
many of our caloric needs.

The Green New Deal is going to have to address this challenge head on and leave ample room
for experimentation, but an experimentation that intentionally breaks the power of the
monopolies and creates new incentives for production that are not profit-driven or bound.

You’ve been very lucid on the problem of productivism that’s implicit in a lot of E
Green New Deal proposals. One way some of us have tried to address this issue is
by emphasizing other kinds of work, like care work. Another idea out there is to
transition huge amounts of the workforce toward part-time work — that is, to distribute
existing work more evenly. What are some of the ways you think we should finesse a jobs
guarantee to avoid reproducing capitalist and/or socialist productivist politics?

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KA The Left has to start positioning itself around improving the overall quality of life of
the working class, the oppressed, and humanity as a whole. A broader distribution of
work is a necessary step in this direction without question, and it’s not only the right
direction, but the imperative one. However, this has to be combined with forms of solidarity
exchange to improve the quality of life of the majority of humanity. This is where things like
time-banking on a mass scale can and should come in. As well as the overall expansion of the
commons.

To my mind, this will also entail transitional measures, such as a universal basic income (UBI). I
say transitional because instituting a UBI without socializing the means of production would
only serve to reproduce the capitalist logic of accumulation and the unequal relationships that
are necessary for its reproduction.

Ultimately, I think we are going to have to develop a comprehensive and democratic planning
system that equitably distributes the essential goods and services we all need to survive and
thrive. And to be clear, I’m not arguing for a return to the centralized state-capitalist economies
of the twentieth century, but the democratic socialization of the emergent information-based
exchange economies, and that would utilize technological innovations to create a regenerative
economy.

This would entail, at least in its early stages, various rules and limits, to make sure that
exchanges stay within scientific and social limits related to resource extraction and energy
utilization, until they become normative — which would take a few generations to undo the
century of conspicuous consumption that has been advanced and promoted by late capitalism.

You’ve pointed to indigenous leadership in stopping pipelines at places like E


Standing Rock and argued we need to “scale up our campaigns against the oil
companies,” including through direct action. Others have called for nationalizing
and shutting down oil and gas companies. What does scaling up the fight against fossil-fuel
companies look like? What’s the political path to taking down these incredibly rich and
powerful companies?

KA As I noted, the type of direct action that we witnessed at Standing Rock is where we
are going to have to go. The march of death that the petrochemical companies are
leading us on leaves us with no other choice.

There are some critical steps that must be taken before we get to that level of mass direct action
on an ongoing basis. We have to do a much more thorough job of getting the masses of people to

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understand the severity of the crisis and our collective ability to do something about it. We have
some hearts and minds to win; and we have to defeat the notion that capitalism can’t be
defeated. It’s going to be hard, but it’s not an immutable system.

The forces of reaction are doing everything within their power to make the direct action we’ve
seen over the last decade explicitly illegal. They are going to escalate their brutality. Standing
Rock should have taught us that. Indeed, many land, water, and sky protectors are already
getting killed throughout the Global South.

We are going to have to get people to understand that preserving life on this planet is well worth
the sacrifices that thousands if not millions of us are going to have to consciously make, by
throwing our bodies directly on the line against the system. We are at the midnight hour, and
it’s eco-socialism or death. We have to be clear about what it will entail to eliminate the current
system.

This type of consciousness-raising has to precede options such as nationalization as a means of


liquidating fossil capital. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t introduce the idea and use it as a
motivating factor, but we have to be real that it is going to take millions of people acting in
accord with one another to make this option a concrete reality.

You’ve been active in the environmental justice movement for a long time. What E
lessons do you draw from that work? What kinds of strategies and coalitions have
been most effective? What can we learn from the people who have been fighting
on this for a long time about how to take on powerful industries?

KA To be honest, the answer to this question would take a book. Let me redirect the
question a bit. It is time that we seriously appreciate the insights of groups like Earth
First!. In terms of social movement development, they were ahead of their time. Our
challenge now is figuring out how to scale them up significantly and in a very short period of
time — within five years, because we only have a decade at best to get this right.

We need to reevaluate the di erences in outcomes between the ecologically oriented


movements of the 1960s and 1970s from those of the 1990s to the present. It is no accident that
the most significant environmental legislation yet passed in the US, like the Endangered
Species Act, the construction of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, were
passed in the late 1960s and early 1970s — and by Richard Nixon no less. These acts were
passed on the basis of the strength and militancy of the social movements of the era, which
posed a direct threat to the system.

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The ecological movements of the 1990s to the present have not benefited from coexisting with
strong, militant movements amongst broad layers of the oppressed and the working class. In the
absence of these latter movements, the struggles against environmental racism and for climate
justice have had to rely on lobbying to address their demands. This has in turn forced these
movements to rely on “good politicians,” rather than creating conditions that the system had to
respond to — or else. We have to build movements that have the size, clarity, strength, and
determination to pose clear “or else” threats.

Internationalism is one of the principles of Cooperation Jackson, and you’ve E


emphasized the importance of internationalism on climate in particular. What
would it look like to build internationalist policies into a GND? And what examples
of political projects in the Global South — of eco-socialism, just transitions, sustainable
agriculture, cooperatives, energy democracy, etc. — do you find inspiring or exciting? How
can leftists in the US connect to, support, and learn from those projects?

KA Another excellent question. I will mention four critical policies:

1. Policies that create international mechanisms and institutions that work directly
with indigenous peoples and communities in the rainforest regions of Africa, Asia, the
Caribbean, Latin America, and Oceania to stop the operations of multinational mining,
petrochemical, agricultural, fishing, and medical corporations. These policies would
need to explicitly counter the United Nations Reducing Emissions through
Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (UN REDD) program
— not because we are haters of the United Nations, but because this program is rooted
in neoliberal logic and is a reintroduction of colonial practices that threaten to displace
millions of indigenous peoples from their lands.

2. Policies that promote the development of open source technologies to directly transfer
technology and information to peoples throughout the world. This will enable
communities to produce the new carbon-reducing or carbon-neutral technologies that
are innovated locally, thus eliminating the need for long-distance trade that would fuel
more carbon emissions.

3. Policies that will end the international operations of the US-based petrochemical,
mining, agricultural, fishing, and medical transnational monopolies. This will enable
local production of essential goods and services when and where needed and put a halt
to the extraction and accumulation regimes that currently dominate our planet.

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4. Policies that eliminate the impositions of the World Trade Organization (WTO) that
negate national and local sovereignty, which has been detrimental to the introduction
of major climate mitigation initiatives in the US and Canada.

There are no shortage of political projects occurring in the Global South addressing the climate
crisis and the broad range of topics that you mention. I have been deeply inspired by
movements in Micronesia and the Maldives to force the world to deal with the fact that their
island homelands are disappearing as we speak. Their direct-action engagements at various UN
and international functions have been heart-wrenching and eye-opening. There are a few
explicitly eco-socialist movements in the Global South that I am aware of. The most developed
in my view are in South Africa, Venezuela, and Bolivia. The critical thing about the movements
in these countries is that they have put the question of climate change and the regeneration of
the ecology on their national agendas.

And finally, it is imperative for our movements here in the Global North to be intentional about
connecting with the movements in the Global South. In many respects, the movements in the
Global South are far more advanced than those in the Global North, especially in terms of their
political consciousness, organizational development, membership, and social bases. However,
what many of the movements in the Global South don’t possess are the resources we have at our
disposal in the Global North — and I don’t just mean financial resources, but varying degrees of
infrastructure, like widespread access to electricity and telecommunications services.

In thinking about how to build a new international, we have to think strategically about how
best to utilize our respective strengths to overcome our respective weaknesses. We need to
draw on the political and organizing strengths of our comrades in the Global South,
understanding that we will have to adapt them to our respective context and all the social
struggle that will entail, while also figuring out how to transfer our own strengths, if only by
providing them with greater resource and media access to speak and act on their own behalf to
the wider world.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kali Akuno is the cofounder and executive director of Cooperation Jackson, and coeditor of Jackson Rising: The Struggle for
Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, MS.

FILED UNDER
ENVIRONMENT / STRATEGY
CLIMATE CHANGE / ECOSOCIALISM / GREEN NEW DEAL

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